2015-05-11 collective impact

Collective Impact: Hope, Hoopla and How to Do It Better

There is no shortage of both hope and hoopla when it comes to the topic of Collective Impact.  Since the initial term was introduced in a Winter 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) article by Mark Kramer and John Kania, the concept has been one of the hottest topics in the social and philanthropic sectors.  A year after introducing the term, Kania, Kramer and their colleague at FSG Social Impact Advisors wrote a follow-up article in the SSIR and stated that the response to the original article was “overwhelming.”  And that was just the beginning.

The Hope

In a world where organizational behaviors and community dynamics have been largely defined by funding and evaluation practices that focus on the isolated impact of individual programs, the growing emphasis on collaboration, coordination and teamwork is an important shift that should give hope that better results are possible.  Given the frustrating lack of progress in addressing many of the complex issues we face today, the hope that a different approach, such as Collective Impact, can be dramatically more effective is very attractive—and, I would say, justified.

The Hoopla

Dictionary.com defines “hoopla” as “bustling excitement or activity; commotion.” The hoopla around Collective Impact comes in many forms—from the sheer number of articles, conference presentations and times it appears in websites to the vast number of coalition efforts that claim to be embracing the approach in some form.  Searching online for the term “Collective Impact” (in quotes) produces an overwhelming abundance of new content every month.  Some individuals claim that it is merely a repackaging of methods they have used for years.  Others insist that it is fundamentally different from prior attempts at collaboration and that it requires major shifts and mindsets to be realized.  Some champions of the concept emphasize the rigor of the measurement and accountability while others emphasize the need to nurture relationships and let the strategy emerge without major encumbrances of a pre-defined logic model and a prematurely-defined set of measures.  Given the stakes of success and failure for the issues that Collective Impact efforts tend to focus on, the hoopla is understandable.  The abundance of education, discussion and debate should help to advance what is in many ways a broad umbrella under which different practitioners, academics and consultants may work to advance and apply different ways of achieving the five conditions that have come to define the essence of Collective Impact:

  • Common Agenda
  • Shared Measurement
  • Mutually-Reinforcing Activities
  • Continuous Communication
  • Backbone Support

At a minimum, those five conditions have helped create a more structured way to discuss the topic of community collaboration and have launched valuable examinations of how things could be done differently.

How to Do it Better

Regardless of your feelings on Collective Impact’s definition, hope, or hoopla, most people would agree that there is plenty of room to do it better.  The debates on how new or different Collective Impact is or which areas of emphasis have the greatest value are not nearly as important as learning how to do it better.  The case for needing to improve collaboration and teamwork is much stronger than the success stories that give us hope for the potential benefits of pursuing a Collective Impact approach.  Even the most popular case studies of success are typically making less progress than we hope can be achieved.  In short, most people would agree that there is a lot of room to improve in nearly every aspect of this emerging field.

John Kania and Peter Senge (long considered one of the leading experts and authors on systems thinking and learning organizations) state the following in the Winter 2015 SSIR article titled The Dawn of System Leadership:

“For undoubtedly we are at the beginning of the beginning in learning how to catalyze and guide systemic change at a scale commensurate with the scale of problems we face, and all of us see but dimly.”

If thought leaders like Kania and Senge emphasize that they are a long way from figuring this out—and I would say that the system leadership that they are referring to is a huge part of what is needed to achieve the potential of Collective Impact—then we should all embrace the fact that a great deal of discovery still lies ahead of us.

It is important to realize that a Collective Impact approach is the not the most appropriate path to success in every situation.  There are plenty of simple or complicated challenges that can be addressed without needing to embrace the often-illusive conditions of Collective Impact. The mature disciplines of Quality Improvement, including flavors such as Six Sigma, have established techniques that are systematically taught and implemented and are readily applicable to several situations.  However, when we aspire to take on the complex “grand challenges” that are often the focus of Collective Impact efforts, we should all be eager to learn ways to improve our ability to achieve the potential that inspires both the hope and the hoopla.

How Funders and Grant Managers can Help

Funders who recognize the value of Collective Impact and want to see communities grow in their capacity to collaborate in more intentional and effective ways can use their resources to support innovation in Collective Impact.  Grant applicants may boast about their knowledge and skills in this advanced form of collaboration since that is often key to scoring the points that will determine if they get the funding.  But when the dust settles and it is time to do the work, the quote above from Senge and Kania that we’re “at the beginning of the beginning” of learning to do this is probably a more accurate assessment of how equipped even the relatively high-functioning coalitions are.  While there is much to learn from the pioneers, there is not a proven path to simply follow.  Progress will accelerate when communities build on past lessons but also take educated chances to try new approaches or techniques that seem promising.  Grant managers can support this valuable innovation by giving grantees the flexibility to pursue new ways of advancing practices that support Collective Impact and more effective, pro-active collaboration.  Investing in innovation to advance state-of-the-art techniques and tools that enhance Collective Impact could support important breakthroughs in this emerging discipline.

Funders can also help to build the capacity of coalitions that are often struggling with how to operate in the new frontiers of community teamwork that emphasize cross-sector, multi-stakeholder coalitions.  Cash-strapped and lightly-funded alliances and coalitions often lack the resources to learn what is helping others to achieve Collective Impact.  One of the best aspects of the hoopla mentioned above is that there are many lessons being learned and shared through resources like www.collectiveimpactforum.org and the Collective Impact Hub on www.communitycommons.org.  But, if funders do not provide the resources for coalitions and backbone organizations to learn from others, the lessons will not spread as fast as they could.  Without better knowledge transfer, countless coalitions will waste precious resources as they repeat the mistakes of others or fail to use techniques that others have discovered or developed.  Investing in Collective Impact innovation and capacity building may seem like taking on an uncomfortable amount of risk in a time when many grant managers are looking for certainty and evidence-based solutions that seem like safe bets, but the potential payoff makes these risks worth taking.

In Conclusion

If the excitement about Collective Impact is not supported by a hunger to learn, experiment and share, then we as communities, countries and a world may miss an important opportunity to make markedly-improved progress on the looming challenges that are becoming increasingly evident.  Given the powerful influence of funding practices and grant management processes, those who give and oversee the funding that fuels the social sector should be leading the way in exploring how their approach and processes can spur innovation, learning and the capacity of coalitions to achieve the aspirations of the Collective Impact approach.

While no model or framework is without shortcomings, the hoopla about Collective Impact has created an extraordinary opportunity to examine how cross-sector, multi-stakeholder coalitions—and the funders that support them—can improve how they work to address the priority issues that we care about.  In doing so, they will inspire many more organizations and individuals to become part of the positive changes that we hope will define a brighter future.


Two Suggestions for Learning How to Build Collective Impact Capacity

In addition to the websites mentioned in the blog article, I would like to offer two ways to build your capacity and learn some promising techniques that are gaining recognition as valuable in achieving Collective Impact faster and more effectively.  The first is an educational presentation that may introduce you to some techniques or concepts that you have not previously seen or used.  I recently spoke at a pre-conference workshop at a major population health colloquium.  In that presentation, I shared a series of recommendations to help shift from isolated impact techniques to techniques that better support Collective Impact.  Based on the positive feedback, I repackaged the content into a 38-minute recording which you can view online.

The recommendations in that presentation are by no means a comprehensive toolkit for Collective Impact, and different situations may call for different techniques.  However, the recommendations are practical techniques that are likely to be valuable in many situations.  Please share your thoughts on the recommendations made in this presentation as comments on this blog article.

The second way to build your capacity is a new, 12-week online training program that we are piloting this summer.  Having been on both the learning and teaching side of numerous webinars, workshops and conferences that were genuinely striving to equip and empower people who were part of Collective Impact efforts, I concluded that it was neither realistic nor ideal to provide the knowledge transfer and coaching in a single session or conference.  It seemed more effective to spread the learning out over what is undeniably a multi-month journey to achieving greater Collective Impact.  If too much learning is concentrated at one time, it can be overwhelming, and much of the material will be forgotten by the time the person is at the point of the journey where it is relevant.  What seemed better is to have the training and coaching spread out over multiple months so that tools and techniques could be clarified closer to the time that they were needed.  Because most of the coalitions that we have encountered have had very limited funding, they typically struggle to afford the consulting support that seemed necessary.  In the spirit of looking for better ways to accelerate this emerging field, we are pioneering a 12-week online summer training program that will introduce a significant amount of valuable content in manageable portions and will provide affordable training, coaching and peer interaction that is spaced in a way that people can apply what they are learning over a longer timeframe.  The training program will also provide valuable tools that can be shared with your coalition.  You can learn more about the program on our website.

If you are a grant manager, you may want to at least view the recorded presentation.  If you like what you see, please share it with the coalitions that you fund or others that you know who are striving to learn more about how to be more efficient and effective in their efforts to achieve Collective Impact.  If that taste of tools and techniques whets your appetite for more, please consider joining us as participants in our Summer Training Program.

Bill Barberg

Bill Barberg is the President and founder of Insightformation, Inc., a management consulting and technology company based in Minneapolis, MN. He is a globally recognized expert in the Collective Impact, the Balanced Scorecard methodology, strategy implementation, and community health innovation. Bill has consulted with dozens of communities and organizations and has presented many conference keynotes, workshops and Web-conferences on Collective Impact and strategy management. Follow him on Twitter @billbarberg.

  • Outstanding article Bill. Really well done. Thanks for continuing to get the word out. I have already shared this one the Collectivity site, and SEA Twin Cities. I will look for other venues as well.